Show And Tell

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Show don't tell in your writing

Ah, that most vexatious of subjects – “show, don’t tell.” Advice which is bandied about liberally yet which writers, particularly those newer to the craft, often struggle to comprehend. I speak from experience – it took me years to get my head around the difference between showing and telling.

Yet, like riding a bike or juggling hamsters, it’s a skill which, once learned, will never desert you. Today I offer some examples which I hope will serve to clearly illustrate the difference and give you a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to showing versus telling.

OK, let’s start with a bit of telling shall we?

Lord Farnsworth bustled toward the Orangery. The night air was cold and a light rain was falling.

So far, so factual. A clear description of the weather, very useful if you yourself are planning to go for a walk and wondering if you need your trusty brolly. But it’s not particularly compelling is it? In fact, it’s rather dreary. Much like the weather afflicting his Lordship.

Right, let’s try it again, but this time in a ย showing frame of mind…

Lord Farnsworth bustled toward the Orangery, clutching his Belgian Army greatcoat tight about his corpuscular form for warmth. He paused to wipe a solitary raindrop from his monocle before continuing en route to his assignation.

Now that, my dear friends, tells the reader exactly the same amount about the weather conditions but without making them feel like they have the shipping forecast on a continual loop inside their head. Even better, it has the added bonus of enabling me to divulge a few more salient facts about dear old Lord Farnsworth without having to embark upon another round of telling – he’s portly, a slightly eccentric dresser and is most likely up to no good of one form or another.

And which of those two passages makes you want to read on? Yes, precisely. Therein lies the main purpose of showing rather than telling. It’s not just that telling brings the writing down to a prosaic, mundane and unreadably dull level, rather that showing helps to do exactly what we writers set out to do in the first place – to create a picture with words.

Anton Chekov once neatly summarised the difference thus:

Donโ€™t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Nicely played sir.

Having said that, of course, there are occasions on which it’s perfectly fine to tell. All rules are made to be broken, as long as you know when to break them and when not. Possibly the most crucial point at which to ‘tell’ is when ‘showing’ would bog down your story.

As you can see from the examples above, ‘showing’ is almost invariably lengthier and more wordy than simply ‘telling’. As much as we want our stories to be rich and highly-detailed, creating elaborate worlds in the minds of readers, there are times when the action needs to move on apace.

I feel another example coming on! Let me show you a scene…

Adamantine lustres were birthed in the golden silk of the cashier’s hair by the harsh blue-ice gleam of the neon striplight. “25 pence please,” she purred in a voice which could have melted walnuts. Her smooth milk-white skin contrasted sharply with the puckered pith of the citrus nestled in her slim, elegant fingers.

Jack Hammer’s mouth went dry as his fingertips brushed hers, before striding manfully toward the car park on legs as weak as a new-born foal.

OK, now that’s all very showy, which is a good thing, right? Well, no, not really on this occasion. Here’s an alternative viewpoint for you:

“25 pence please,” said the blonde cashier, holding out the lemon.

“Cute,” thought Jack Hammer as he strode with his fruit toward the car park, where the first Martian death ray neatly shaved off his left eyebrow.

If Jack Hammer is about to fall head-over-heels for the blonde cashier and rescue her from untold perils, before discovering that she’s the evil mastermind behind the invasion, thereby landing him in the existential crisis of whether to save her or the whole of humanity, then the first version is absolutely splendid.

However, this passage exists purely to place Jack in the supermarket at the start of the Martian invasion, ensuring he’s in the right place at the right time to become a hero. So all the extraneous detail being shown is a complete waste of time and effort. In that particular instance, it’s OK to tell. Really, it is. Our reader just wants to get on with all the exciting death ray stuff.

That said, even version 2 isn’t a total show-don’t-tell disaster. It manages to show us a couple of things about our intrepid hero – he has an eye for the ladies, is partial to blondes and has extreme good fortune in matters of not being incinerated by death rays.

So there you have it – should you find yourself in a quandary as to whether you’re showing or telling, ask yourself “What would Lord Farnsworth do?” and you won’t go far wrong.

And now I really think I have to go off and write that tale about Jack Hammer and the Martian Invasion – sounds like a rollicking read to me!

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14 thoughts on “Show And Tell

  1. I enjoyed the example.

    I think elevating “Show, don’t tell” to the status of a rule that is sometimes meant to be broken is lifting it a bit too high. It’s a tremendously useful tool with certain effects (and that’s what you’re getting at with the last example). Usually those effects are exactly what you want…but sometimes they’re not.

    There’s also a problem with “false showing,” where you think you’re showing, but you’re not. My (slight) programming background says that telling is presenting first causes. “He said, angrily.” “It was snowing.” “A health fanatic, Bodobar decided to jog to the mountain and confront the dragon.” All are telling.

    Showing is presenting consequences. If you show, the reader has to think about what causes something. Because he had to clean off his monocle, we know it’s raining. Because his wife yelled at him not to let his damned bloody boots in the house, we discover he works in a slaughterhouse. Because it took three tries for her to get the key in the lock, we know she’s not all right.

    Showing usually takes more words than telling, though it can present additional information about setting or character; it creates a greater emotional effect; it leads to greater identification on the part of the reader. But sometimes it undermines the effect of the story that you want by putting stress on an event that isn’t important. Sometimes you need to present information quickly in order to get to the real story.

    It’s rather like active versus passive voice: Usually you want active voice, but there are places and uses for the passive voice.

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    • Wow, thanks for taking the time to think into this, I really appreciate it. And I completely agree with the points you make in your commentary.

      I call it a “rule” only with imaginary inverted commas – there’s so much discussion around the “rules” of writing, which I personally feel too many newer writers take as gospel rather than as guidelines for improvement.

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  2. I enjoyed your examples. Are you really writing a story about Jack Hammer and a Martian invasion? Oh, that does sound splendid. Your blog is looking sharp. I want those social buttons. How did you get those? If you don’t mind me asking.

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  3. Oh, I agree. The “show don’t tell” thing took me years to fully understand as well! And yes, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is to “tell” the “boring” bits, or the scenes that are simply there to move a reader and characters to the next important, exciting bit, and then SHOW the exciting and important parts again! I’m glad you made a post about this though, since something like this YEARS AGO would have helped me greatly! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    An online workshop instructor of mine, Stephen Mertz, also had a good rule of thumb for scenes as far as showing went, and that was to fit in at least three of the senses in your important scenes, ie, sight, touch, smell or smell, touch, taste, etc. I try to keep that in mind too, as I am really bad about ignoring the senses other than sight, especially in first drafts!

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